Give students a hand: scaffolding WL writing activities to lower filter and increase success!

Providing on-target scaffolding to promote student success

This week marked the apertura de clases at my school.   I was very excited to get to know the students. I had already prepared this "I want to know you activity" and these "Spice it up writing prompts" to thoroughly engage my upper level Spanish class. I just knew everything was going to flow so smoothly the first week right before we jump into the real learning;  I was wrong.

The first day as students started to introduce themselves and I probed them with extremely basic questions with the dual purpose of getting to know them and surmising their potential placement on the language continuum To my surprise, some upper level students students showed difficulty in responding to novice-low and mid questions. One student in particular, struggled to understand a very basic question such as ¿Tú trabajas?  I was baffled, even more so when he told me "Spanish 4 is like Spanish 1 all over again,"referring to the perceived  level of his classmates (some students are in the class because they want to improve their language level before going to AP; others  were not eligible for AP hence a negative outlook on their ability).  One thing was clear,  prior to giving the first fun writing activity, I had a lot of work to do.

Languishing Language Skills 

As I conferenced with students asking them about their summer, I noticed that many students had a uphill battle speaking the target language, using simple albeit accurate structures. The issue was pervasive.  This got me to thinking about the nature of input. When you think about input and learning a language, it is comparable to building a muscle; you use it or lose it. I then realized that many students inaugurating the school year:

  • Have been two and a half months removed from the language context
  • Their language skills atrophied over the summer 

Pass me another brick

In a sense, my student was correct. Students have returned to the embryonic stage of learning a language. I suspect that as the year progresses and they"ll start registering rich, and robust input and coincidentally; the language acquisition device in their minds will start to receive, perceive and reactive again. Until then, I have to proceed with caution and make sure my teaching is supportive, not presumptive and that for the next month or so I need to come along side them to pass them another brick and help them rebuild.

So back to the writing prompt 

Instead of giving them solely the writing prompt, which I'd use to collect soft data on their writing skills. I created the writing scaffolding practice below with the goal of:

  • Engaging students and lowering their affective filter
  • Allowing them to use each other as resources 
  • Helping them to identify their strengths and weaknesses so they can start mapping them out

The document reviews the basics of the present tense before they began writing. We spent about 20 minutes reviewing and working in pairs.  I have never felt a class be so calm. There was an uptick in participation (the first day they were understandably timid). The class was highly engaged and productive. 

I was glad I had done this because as I walked around I noticed students struggled with the present tense and ser/estar usage. We discussed it and they were allowed to use that along with a sheet I had compiled from online resources to guide their first writing. It was a great lesson!

Download the updated writing prompt and scaffolding activity here. 

Should we assign homework in the World Language Classroom?


Should we assign homework in the World Language Classroom? 

         The other day I had a very interesting conversation with another educator about the role of homework in the world language classroom.  Historically, I came from a project-based technology school where homework was next to nil. I had some issues with this policy, but soon adapted because, when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. However,  I am currently teaching at a new school and, well, the conversation resurfaced again. The questions driving (and underlying) our conversation, were:

  • When do we assign homework in a world language classroom?
  • Why do we give homework? 
  • What should that homework look like?
  • What is the purpose?

Standard-Based Homework

          My response to all questions centered was production-oriented more than anything.  I assumed "well you give homework to practice a skill." Additionally, if students did not complete work in class, then they should do it for homework. No brainer right?  This philosophy had satisfied at least in my initial attempts to process the questions.  However, my colleague camped out on the why and the what of assigning homework.  "  After some preliminary research on the matter, my colleague made me consider another rationale for extending learning beyond the four walls of the class: only give homework that connects with an authentic standard-based goal

Here are some examples we discussed as we will be teaching the same level course this year. For example: When learning about personal appearance during a lesson,  a typical homework assignment would be:

  • To write a list of personal characteristics may be in form of a graphic organizer 
  • Benefits: this is more personalized to the student  
  • Better than giving vocabulary words (I agree, they are isolated from the context) for definitions or verb practice unless it is within the context of this goal. Okay, tell me more! 

While I appreciate this approach and have used it to some extent- my novice-mid students had to annotate a text we were going to read the next day in class- part of me still thinks that reviewing flashcards on quizlet for vocabulary practice, and completing some cloze texts assignments are meaningful and help students in different ways. 

 I am also tempted to believe that some of those "shunned skill-based assignments" are in fact differentiation for some students' learning styles.  I have always seen homework as an opportunity to practice skills and class time spent synthesizing, speaking and engaging in problem-based activities.  I cannot even imagine a class without some type of skill-based homework (not all classes have to mimic this). 

The Research 

I enjoy reading a variety of perspectives on an issue before making a definite decision. The author of the article titled Homework v.s. No Homework  , which can be found on Edutopia, suggests that we are asking the wrong question altogether. The article posits that we should reframe our quest to explore what we believe students should be doing at the end of the school day. To this end two litmus-test questions should be asked: 
  • How will what we assign enable students to retain what they've learned?
  • How will the after-school activity prime or position them for learning the next day? 
      These questions definitely got me to thinking about the Flipped Classroom model and how it addresses the priming and positioning students for learning the very next day with using videos to reinforce concepts. 

 I love watching MJ's awesome videos in class. They are funny and instructive, but to free up more class time for PBL and Communicative-based approach, students could preview videos at home to prime their cognition for concepts to be explored the next day. I have used great resources like these mainly as a "during the learning process" type of assignment. What if I used this model to frontload learning?  

Furthermore, instead of just requiring students to watch the video and fill out verb conjugations- mindless work, I am planning on giving them "think-sheet" type notes that combine a host of vocabulary practice and critical thinking. Once I have a good template, I will attach to this post. This could potentially help students:

  • Retain whatever concept we are exploring (multiple multi-sensorial exposures)
  • Prime them for the next day. 
In planning some quality standards-based homework, I found these blogs extremely useful: Flipping the World Language Classroom and Flipping with Kirch.

 Okay, I'll admit, this meaningful word is thrown around quite a bit! Nonetheless, this next article was short, sweet and informative. Best of all, it was written from the perspective of a college student. He offered noteworthy guidelines to consider when assigning homework, but the best advice for my practice was considering: 

  • Time management, resources, and context 
  • Making Real World Connections 
1.  He emphasized that teachers need to remember that our class is not students' only class. We also have to be mindful of the context, students' lives and if the homework is compatible with their circumstances. It would be impossible to implement a Flipped Classroom when most students have little to no internet connection. This makes perfect sense. 

2. He was also passionate about the nature of Real World Connections. These assignments help to answers the students' biggest questions. The second one resonated with me the most. 

Last year, my novice-mid students had to complete a huge presentational sort of capstone at the end of the course. Students had to pitch a trip to Spain to a group of high school students. There was a prize, so they were fairly incentivized. You can see the free activity here in this post (It undergoes constantly revision and add-ons). For homework, I gave them graphic organizers of how to research basic information about their country- it is all included in the packet. Once in class they: 

  • Conferenced with me and gave me mini pitches about their region 
  • Collaborated in their group- I give them timetables 
These series of homework assignments were just a natural part of the assignment. However, they also had traditional homework with practicing vocabulary, reading  reading, vocabulary and verb activities.  I found these activities useful to what they were doing. 

How can I make this type of homework meaningful? 

This is my personal quest to create a menu of assignments that integrate these core components. Then again, I may not have to do it myself. Check out what other teachers are doing. This Real World Assignment posted by La profesora Frida. It sheds light on the question in part as the assignment allows students to interact with language in a very natural way. This assignment can be modified for students who are not privy to technology, but it is a great start and granito a la conversación

 I am still seeking clarity on this debate about homework in the language class, what is its place, purpose, and priority?   I will update this post periodically with ideas, resources,  insights and of course more research!

Your thoughts? What assignments do you give as homework? 

Resources and ideas for Real World Homework 

Students could also look on their TV guides and jot down several programs with Spanish Titles

Identity Collage- student write 20 characteristics that make them unique prior to building their collage in class 

Country Project by Señora Cruz- students use graphic organizers to complete information about their country.